By J. Daniel Rollins
Register-Herald Sports Writer
When Tommy Small, Jr., made boxing history by going from the small, one stoplight town of Sophia to fighting under the bright lights of Miami, Philadelphia and Detroit and winning the WBF light middleweight championship, there was one constant driving force — his father, Tom Sr., who passed away on Sept. 18.
“We got into (boxing) on a whim,” Tommy Jr. said. “For years and years, I wanted to get into the Toughman (Contest) when I was younger. We’d go over there and start watching. I would think ‘I could be good.’ and then he said ‘it’s time to do it.’”
Tommy, Jr. went on to win the Toughman in 1985, and in 1986 he had his first of 52 professional fights. And all along the way, Tom Sr. was by his side — whether that was in the ring at training or in his corner coaching him along.
“My dad was the old school type of trainer,” Tommy said. “Work hard, work hard, work hard.”
“Big Tom,” as so many knew him, opened a gym in Beckley right on City Avenue, where he would train his son and countless other fighters over a 30-plus year history.
“My dad believed in being in an old run down place,” Tommy said with a laugh. “He always wanted us to be hungry. — never wanted modern day training tools. It was always about working hard and giving everything that you had. He worked just as hard as we did. The mental stress. All the training every day. He would get up early every day and do it with me.”
Even if Tommy, Jr. wasn’t a fan of the training facilities.
“He brought boxing back alive in the 80s and 90s,” he said. “He put a little boxing ring together. It was so small. I hated being there. I was so upset about it for the first several months. And then it became the place to be. People came from out of state just to come there to train. I didn’t see his vision. He didn’t talk about it. You just had to follow his plan.”
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Over time, Small began to train many others who would go on to have plenty of success. One of those included former West Virginia state cruiserweight champion, Bert Gravely.
“I was working out with Little Tommy, and we both fought in the Toughman at the same time,” Gravely said. “Tom had to be a little bit tough to deal with me and Tommy both. We were young and hard headed.”
Gravely would go on to have 40 pro fights, many of which included Tom Sr. in the corner. But it was when Gravely met up with another southern West Virginia boxing legend in Bobby Thomas at the Raleigh County Armory on Oct. 10, 1988 that he recalled as his highest moment. Having his favorite trainer in his corner didn’t hurt any.
“Tom worked really hard there,” Gravely said. “His heart and soul was in the fighting game.”
Gravely would go on to defeat Thomas by unanimous decision in 12 rounds.
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Greg Cade had been all over the world in boxing.
After training at the famed Gleason’s Gym in New York City, Cade returned home to Beckley and trained at Small’s gym on City Ave.
“When I found Tom ... he was the best trainer I ever had,” Cade said. “He had guys who were world champions. He was an excellent trainer. He was sharp as a tack.”
Cade turned pro in 1998 before having his final fight in 2002 in one of the more bizarre environments professional boxing has ever seen. Sure enough, Tom Sr. was right there with him.
“A bad storm had come upon us, and to make a long story short there was no power,” Cade said.
The promoter of the fight decided the show must go on. He rented a large tent, hooked a light bulb up to the generator and held the fight in the parking lot.
“We didn’t have a place to change,” Cade said. “I ended up changing in a tire shop. We realized we didn’t have any water for the fight, so Tom found some guys who had a cooler of beer and used their ice to melt down to water for me.
“When I walked to the ring, my boots were soaked. He laughed about it and said ‘that’s the roughest fight I’ve ever seen.’”
Cade had his nose broken in the first round and by the third round was behind on points.
“When I got to the corner, I tried to talk and was talking over Tom,” he added. “He slapped me in the face with a bare hand and said ‘Stop talking and listen to me.’ I did and ended up winning the fight in the next round.”
“Coming from a small town, there weren’t very many fighters other than Bert and Tommy, but they had both been retired,” he said. “When I came here, there was no one to spar with, so Tom called Bert and asked him to come out. Because of the respect for Tom, Bert came out of retirement and trained with me for my final fight. I’ll never forget that or coach.”
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Big Tom’s impact has reached well around the world. His former pupil, Danny Akers, is carrying on his training tradition in Winston-Salem, N.C.
“I’ve got five professionals that I train,” Akers said. “He showed me the ins and outs. I would call him a lot and ask for advice. He was just as good of a person as he was a trainer.”
Small’s training methods made their way to Akers, who now has two fighters training in Europe with the heavyweight champion Klitschko brothers.
“Tom just had a knack for it,” Akers said. “The best advice he ever gave me was to always be straight up and train to the fighter’s ability. He could always bring out the best in people.”
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Tom Sr. wasn’t just a boxing trainer. He became a father figure to the young men whom he impacted.
“Tom was a tough guy, kind of like Mick from Rocky,” Tommy Stewart, whom Small helped train to a 30-5 amateur record, said. “He always wanted you to do your best in whatever it was. He would tell you the truth.”
“Coach was a very hard nosed and to the point kind of guy,” Josh Rife added. “He was a very genuine and good guy. If you were wrong, he would tell you that you were wrong. He was one of the few guys who have gone out of their way in my life to be a good influence. He taught me work ethic.”
“I was with Tom for years,” Matt Perdue said. “He was a great guy to be around. A lot of people don’t realize this, but he gave up a Nashville singing career to make that gym happen. He was making good connections in that world, but he gave it all up to come help us.”
It wasn’t just a singing career that Small gave up. He gave up a chance for the biggest stage of them all.
“Dad was always meeting famous people,” Tommy Jr. said. “When (Evander) Holyfield and (Mike) Tyson were going to fight, he had taken a trainer to Texas to spar with Holyfield, and he ended up offering Dad to be an assistant trainer for him. But he turned it down to come home and be with his family.
“He was very demanding; there was a right way or a wrong way, and if you did it the wrong way you knew it immediately,” Small Jr. added. “He didn’t want praise. He just wanted you to live right and do the right things.”
When Tom Sr. passed away, it seemed only fitting that his longtime gym did as well. On the same week that the Small family gathered to say goodbye, the small gym on City Avenue was torn down.
But the gym was only a building. The men he produced in that gym were the legacy.
— E-mail: jrollins
@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter at @JDanielRollins.